How To Find The Lenses Best For You – Choosing Focal Length

Since discovering film cameras and vintage lenses some five summers ago, I’ve been through a fair bit of glass. 

Enough to become concerned about being a lensoholic.

What I’ve learned from this experience – and I appreciate compared with some people’s lens count this is a tiny drop in the Atlantic – is which lenses I like most and why.

I thought it might be useful to outline how this has evolved.

Pentax K10D, Pentax-A 35-70mm f/4 lens

Regular readers might have gathered I’m not really a zoom kind of guy, and when I do use them, I treat them as a prime lens.

By using them in this way – in short, setting them at one zoom position, ie one fixed focal length, on any one photowalk – I’ve had access to a whole range of focal lengths in one lens.

Samsung GX-1S, Tokina SD 28-70mm f/3.5-4.5 lens

This might seem like stating the obvious, but I gather that most people use zooms by simply standing in one position, scanning around until they seem something interesting, zooming the lens until the subject fills the frame how they wish, then releasing the shutter.

Absolutely nothing wrong with this – it’s likely why zooms were originally developed, to be able to capture different shots without switching lenses.

But I’m a simple kind of guy, and just like to concentrate on one focal length at a time, and try to get to know how the world looks through that perspective. 

Pentax K10D, SMC Pentax-A Zoom 35-70mm f/4 lens

Two zooms that have helped me with this recently are the Pentax-A 35-70mm f/4 and Tokina SD 28-70mm.

There’s little to choose between them in size, weight and performance – both will give very pleasing results.

So, with the Tokina say, using the guide numbers on the barrel I can use it as 28mm, 35mm, 50mm and 70mm. 

The Tokina is plenty good enough to give pleasing results at these focal lengths. Plus it has a “macro” mode at 50mm to get really close, down to around 0.2m. This also gives one a taste of the world that close, where most 50mm lenses typically focus down to about 0.5m.

Samsung GX-1S, Tokina SD 28-70mm f/3.5-4.5 lens

The Pentax is even more useful, in my view. 

It might only go to 35mm wide, but also has handy markings at 40, 50, 60 and 70mm. Plus it focuses pretty close at all focal lengths, from around 0.55m at 35mm, 0.27m at 50mm and 0.25m at 70mm.

Again this gives the user a great sample of a range of focal lengths, and closer focusing than most prime lenses. 

Pentax K10D, SMC Pentax-A Zoom 35-70mm f/4 lens

So to anyone starting out with vintage lenses, despite my love of beautiful old primes, especially Asahi Takumars, I would recommend picking up something like the Pentax or Tokina zooms featured here (both gave me change from £10) and experiment for at least a few months with one focal length at a time.

Then, when you find which you like best, maybe explore a prime lens at that focal length.

This makes a lot more sense – and will save you a lot of money and lens gathering – than buying a bunch of beautiful expensive lenses at focal lengths you never warm to. 

Samsung GX-1S, Tokina SD 28-70mm f/3.5-4.5 lens

Affordable compact zooms – even if they don’t establish a permanent place in your photography kit – can be a fantastic step along the way in helping you find the focal lengths you enjoy seeing the world through most.

Which focal lengths do you enjoy most? How did you discover them?

Let us know in the comments below.

Thanks for reading. Please share this post with others you feel will enjoy it too.

21 thoughts on “How To Find The Lenses Best For You – Choosing Focal Length”

  1. Hi Dan,
    on the wide side of life, 35mm is my best friend … followed immediately by 28mm and not to forget the 24mm.
    On the long side, 135mm is the one to go.
    Preference for these came up quite early in my photographic journey, as mostly I intend to frame things so that it gives – at least to me – some sense.

    1. That’s a good way of putting it Reinhold, framing things so they make sense to us.I have been thinking about a 24mm. I fairly recently got a 28mm Takumar and absolutely love it, though the field of view is challenging for me, where 50/55mm still feels like the default. I like that the 28mm encourages me to try different compositions, and shoot different scenes, so hopefully a 24mm might push this even further.

  2. I have a Nikon 35-70 that’s just so useful, but it has wicked distortion at the 35mm end. So much so that I just don’t want to use it very often, because I know I’ll have to Photoshop out that distortion. I want *less* time in Photoshop, not more!

    The more I shoot, the more I like 35mm. I shoot a lot of mid-distance subjects, buildings and such, and 35mm lets me get more in the frame with less backing up. At 50mm, sometimes I am blocked in backing up enough by a building across the street from what I’m shooting!

    I discovered how useful 35mm when I got out my Olympus Trip 35 a couple years ago just for some fun shooting and took it on a road trip. Suddenly my 50mm lenses felt too constraining. So I bought a 35mm lens for my Nikons and took it to Ireland. That did it; I want to shoot 35mm most of the time now. I view 50mm as a lens for closer work.

    1. … well, thinking of my 2.4/35mm Flektogon, focusing down to 20cm, not only the 50mm class is for close work.

      1. As much as I love my Takumars, in terms of results, my Flektogon 35/2.4 probably outperforms any other lens I’ve ever used. Plus that close focus you mention make it very versatile. It’s an essential lens for anyone using M42, or able to adapt to use M42.

    2. Jim, since switching almost entirely to digital in the last six months or so, obviously with an APS-C sensor the frame of view with lenses is cropped compared with using them with 35mm film cameras. So my set of lenses will be different to yours (a 35mm lens on my APS-C DSLRs is equivalent field of view of 52.5mm), and they have all shifted.

      A 35mm is more like a standard 50mm lens on 35mm film, and 50/55mm lenses become like 75/82.5mm. So for me also, the 50/55mms become even more geared towards closer work.

      Strangely, on a film SLR, I found 35mm too wide most of the time, but with a film compact it always seemed the perfect focal length. I think partly because with SLRs (and DSLRs) I usually tend to shoot very close, whereas with a compact I’ll step back a bit and shoot more of a wider scene.

      Distortion is obviously a potential issue for some kinds of photography, and I confess I haven’t tested the lenses mentioned above at the widest end in extreme conditions that might reveal any such flaws. Even with distortion, at least you’d still get the feel of using a 35mm with a 35-70mm zoom, for example, for a very small outlay. As I said both those above cost me less than £10, whereas a half decent 35mm prime is going to be £50ish upwards.

      As Reinhold mentioned, you really should take a look at an M42 35/2.4 Flektogon, they are stunning.

      1. Hi Dan,
        what you mention … using your APSC for these old lenses … is another discussion 😉
        For me, using an MFT as the main digital body for these old lenses it’s even worse, as focal length doubles. My 50mm class becomes a convenient 100mm and unfortunately, the wide angles become “normal” focal lengths.

        So using something different than FF here gives not the real impression of these lenses.
        Don’t get me wrong … I like your pictures very much 😉

        Using my old EOS 5D (Mark I) is not always safe, as often the mirror collides with the rear lens element. Maybe I reactivate my old EOS 40D 😉

      2. Yeh I’ve wondered about writing a post about this, but a) I don’t feel I have enough knowledge myself to explain it and b) don’t really want to write/share technical type posts here anyway!

        It is a very relevant point though, and using predominantly APS-C sensored cameras now it has shifted how I see the world through my set of lenses.

        Overall I think it’s been good, as on film I find even 28mm too wide and have used and sold on two or three excellent lenses in that focal length.

        Now I’ve started trying the Takumar 28/3.5 on my Pentax DSLRs I’ve found it far more usable, as the field of view is more like 42mm.

        I’m interested in a 24mm also, which would be a similar field of view to 36mm with 35mm film, again something I’m very comfortable with.

        Definitely give your 40D another outing a too – I bet you be surprised with how good results you could get!

      3. … don’t get me wrong – I’m not talking about the technical stuff. I’m talking about the different visual impression it gives.

        Personally I enjoy too, using a 50mm lens with my MFT body and having a 100mm f/1.4 where I can focus as close as 45cm – that’s cool ;

        On the other side, using my 15mm Takumar or the 20mm Flektogon gives a completely different visual impression on FF/film bodies.

      4. Yes, I understand. I think though a lot of people wanting to experiment with vintage lenses on modern DSLR and mirrorless cameras aren’t aware of the different sensor sizes and resulting crop factors, and are probably surprised when they first try it as to why it somehow doesn’t look the same as the same lens on a film camera.

        Plus there’s a lot of misinformation about using, say a 50mm lens made for 35mm cameras on an APS-C sensor (with crop factor 1.5x) being the same as using a 75mm lens on 35mm. The field of view and the focal length I think often get muddled/confused/merged into one.

        But then many/most using digital now and going this route maybe never used a film camera so are none the wiser really, and the actually numbers aren’t so important as long as they get results they like.

        To be honest, at my level of photography and interest, it really doesn’t matter what the numbers round the front of a lens are in relation to how much I like it.

        It would be a very interesting experiment if you could completely blind test say half a dozen lenses of different focal lengths and then pick the two you liked most, I wonder if they would be the focal lengths you thought/expected your favourites would be?

        15 and 20mm seems super wide to me, even on APS-C! Though there’s a guy on PentaxForums who shoots loads with his Samsung clone of the Pentax K10D and a 20mm Super-Takumar and I really like his images. They’re nearly all of sweeping scenery on Dartmoor, where a proper wide angle comes into its own.

        One day I hope to try something this wide for a serious amount of time and see how it influences me. Maybe I should have kept the 18-55mm kit zoom that my K10D came with just to play around at the 18mm end…

  3. Great imagery as always. I almost fainted when I saw you use the word “zoom”! In the historic district of my little town 24mm rules. Come to think of it, it works nicely anywhere space is at a premium or when capturing the big picture from only a few meters away.

    1. Thanks Chris. Yeh, I almost fainted when I realised I was actually encouraging the use of zooms too, ha ha!

      I said above to Reinhold, I’ve been thinking about 24mm for a while, either a Takumar, Pentax K or A, or, and you might want to sit down for this, an A series 24-50mm ZOOM which seem very well regarded, and would give me (as I see it) 24, 28, 35 and 50mm lenses in one lens.

      I think my prejudice against zooms came from experiencing two types in my early days of SLR photography –

      1. Late era plastic AF kit zooms, that might perform well enough, but are just horrible to hold and use.

      2. Huge old zooms that go from say 28-200mm or 80-200mm and look like (and weigh as much as) a small rocket launcher.

      There’s a group/era of zooms that are still manual focus, and still really compact, and optically very good. And these appeal to me.

      Both the Pentax-A 35-70/4 and Tokina SD 28-70mm I mentioned above fit into this group, and in fact after exploring a bit further I see there are a few A series zooms that appeal – 24-50mm, 35-70mm (I have) and 35-105mm.

      Also, I feel much more comfortable with zooms on my DSLRs for some reason. On film bodies I just like using a 35mm or 50/55mm and not much else. 105mm, 135mm and even these compact zooms mentioned above just feel unwieldy and awkward somehow. On the two Pentax K mount DSLRs they just balance and handle much better and make more sense to me.

      On a bit of a tangent, I just picked up an M42 Yashinon-DS 50/1.9. I’ve had one before, and a near identical 50/2, and looking back at the photos I made they were good enough to encourage me to try another old Yashinon!

  4. I tend use zooms when I have more time constraints (out with the kids etc. I haven’t found a wide one I like. I like a vivitar 28-105 as general walk around lens, with useful pseudomorphs feature. Others include SMC 75-150, and 50-250 tokina.
    Wide I love 20mm on full frame, bought on a whim and not used it loads but love it when I do prefer it over 24mm, it’s so so small and light. But probably use 28 most which I got hooked on by a Nikon af600 compact….which maybe the only compact I need!!!
    I did a comparison for my own purposes between a flektogon and SMC 35 f2 little visible difference in iq both focus close. Sold the more expensive flektogon…actually preferred an old chrome f2.8 flek I once had and regret selling. Love the scary sharp 85 f2… I still have nightmares about my mum’s facial hair!! ;D
    Everyone loves a nifty fifty, I also really like my 3.5 150 prime so bought a 75-150 zoom it’s fab too and cost almost nothing.

    1. Toby, thanks for your thoughts. What’s a “pseudomorphs feature”? I had the SMC Pentax-M 75-150mm and quite liked it, but as I also had Takumars in 105, 135 and 150mm (and since then 120mm too!) it just didn’t get used. Tremendous value lens though. Combine that with a 28-70mm zoom and you have a lot of options covered.

      Which 20mm lens do you have? The Pentax 35/2 tend to be pretty expensive, and beyond my usual budget. My Flek I managed to find in a lot of stuff, then once I’d sold the rest off it ended owing me about £20. I have an Auto-Tak 35/3.5 but though it’s the same focal length as the Flek I can’t really compare the lenses in any other way. I love the little Tak, but have yet to find a real use for it, whereas the Flek with its close focus and performance can be used for almost anything, and could put up a very strong argument for being the only lens I ever need.

      Which 85/2, the Pentax-M? I have half an eye on one of these, but again they tend to be beyond my usual budget. I might go for a Jupiter-9 85/2 one day, or might just settle with a zoom that covers 80-90mm competently…

      1. Hi Dan,
        Peudomorphus is what unpredictable text on my phone thinks pseudomacro is!!!
        The 20 I use is the Pentax-m, though I do have a cosina 20mm and an ensinor 24mm(excellent lens) on loan to a friend pending a possible sale. But I picked up both for a less than £60, and I don’t mean each. If my friend doesn’t want one or both am happy to offer either one at cost if your interested. Yeah 85/2 is the pentax-m, I too have the 120 in pentax-m, cheaper and better than getting a faster SMC 135, plus I like slightly wider.
        Pretty much all my lenses were picked up cheap in large lots. But not eBay, try looking in ordinary auction houses on line catalogues, loads cheaper. I never buy from dealers, but have become quiet adept at servicing Pentax-m glass. Including minor fungal infections…..I have used anti athlete’s foot cream to do the cleaning as it’s antifungal. It works a treat!
        With regard to a zoom that covers 80-90, I am pleased with the one I mentioned in my first reply which is this one.
        Though I have also looked for one of these cheap.
        I don’t mind putting a few quid into primes, but zooms have to be almost a give away price for me to buy.

      2. Toby, ah I see, I thought I was learning a new technical term in psuedomorphus! Some “macro” modes on lenses are pretty pathetic, but any that get you closer than about 0.3m are very useful, in my view, even though they’re not true macro.

        The Pentax-A Zoom 35-70/4 I mentioned above doesn’t call itself macro but 0.25m ish at 70mm gets me as close as I need in most circumstances, and makes it a bit a shock returning to a 50mm prime that only goes to 0.5m even.

        I could argue for keeping my sub £10 Tokina 28-70 and using it purely for its 50mm “macro” mode which goes down to about 0.25m, over any number of faster prime 50s that can’t get anything like as close.

        Never heard of Ensinor, but just a quick image search has revealed some very impressive images. So if yours became available for sale yes please drop me a message, thank you.

        I’ve just been out today with my Super-Multi-Coated Takumar 120/2.8 and it’s delivered fabulous results. It’s made me wonder whether I need any 135mm lens (this is on my Pentax K10D). The max f/2.8 makes it easy to focus and even wide open it does well. A stop down at f/4, where I use it most of the time, it’s fantastic.

        I’ll have to look at auction houses, thanks for the tip. My only real destination for new lenses is the big auction site.

        I’ve very tentatively dabbled with lens repairs but I don’t really have the dexterity or patience for it! These days I’d rather pay a bit more for a lens I really want that I know is in good condition. Though in my experience a little fungus and dust and even the odd minor scratch has had no visible impact on images.

        I’m looking out for a Pentax-A 35-105 which by all accounts are very good. But they’re not cheap. Like you, my (increasingly unjustified!) aversion to zooms makes me reluctant to pay much for them. even though, as I’ve seen with the A 35-70/4, they can deliver very respectable results at 35, 40, 50, 60 and 70 (the marked FLs on the barrel) so you can easily argue you’re getting four or five lenses in one. Something like £100 (which is what the A 35-105 seems to be fetching) for a very good zoom that covers two or three or four primes seems excellent value on paper.

  5. I’ll let you know when my friend has decided which lens she wants. Unfortunately it’s likely I won’t get it back till after the school holidays.
    I quiet like the A 35/70 4 unfortunately my aperture mechism was fubar. The 35-105 certainly has a good reputation. I have to say the vivitar series 1 70-210 3.5 is fab glass, probably the best I have had in that range. But the weight hampered how I used it. So it had to go.
    I generally really like tokina zooms. Though avoid the tokina 100-300 5.6 it rubbish.
    There’s a nice adaptall tamron you might consider.
    35-135 3.5-4.5. it has a macro feature that goes to 1:4. The close focus at 35mm is about 10-15, and about 1 metre at the 135 end. This is the one in the link. Be careful, there’s a f3.5-4.2 version that’s not anywhere near as good.

    With regard to auctions check out this site.

    A few tips.
    Don’t treat it like an eBay auction, don’t rely on last minute sniping.
    I usually place a cover bid upto the max I’ll pay with the auction house in advance of the auction. so I don’t have to be online.
    You’ll probably need to register with each auction house you wish to bid at.
    Some auction houses will package and ship but check you may be expected to collect within relatively short time frame…a week say.
    All auction houses I have bid at charge a buyer’s premium, anything from 5-20%. And VAT on top. Be aware and enquire.
    I would probably advise to avoid specialist auctions, prices are higher. Household and general antiques I found was best.

    1. Thanks for the auction tips Toby, something to explore. I see that one of the auction houses is in Lewes just a few miles up the road from me, so I’ll keep an eye on what comes up there on the camera front. There are some very interesting lots, obviously just from house clearances where they’ve dumped all the photography kit together.

      I looked at those Vivitars, but all the reviews seem to say fantastic lens but very big and heavy, like you say too.

      By the way your predictive text cracks my up – “my mechism was fubar”!!? : )

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